Israel still has no proof of Unrwa terrorist claims – but damage to aid agency is done

International Desk Published: 23 April 2024, 03:32 PM | Updated: 23 April 2024, 04:28 PM
Israel still has no proof of Unrwa terrorist claims – but damage to aid agency is done
Palestinians walk with their belongings past destroyed buildings in Khan Younis on 8 April. Photo: Haitham Imad/EPA via The Guardian

Unsupported Israeli allegations about Unrwa links to terrorism led major donors to cut $450m in funding to the main humanitarian agency working in Gaza at a time when people there were dying in droves.

Three months later, the situation has only worsened with the onset of a human-made famine on top of the bombing, the collapse of healthcare, the lack of water and a rise in epidemics. And despite a rigorous inquiry by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, supported by three well-respected research institutes, there is still no evidence for the claim that significant numbers of Unrwa employees have Hamas or Islamic Jihad ties.

There is a separate review under way into specific claims Unrwa employees took part in the 7 October attack but that investigation is still not complete, UN officials say. The last time there was a progress report, however, Israel was still withholding cooperation.

The Colonna inquiry, which is a broader assessment of Unrwa neutrality, wrote to the Israeli authorities in March and then again in April asking for names and evidence behind Israeli claims of Hamas and Islamic Jihad ties.

Arguably, Israel did not need to cooperate as Unrwa’s donors proved themselves to be all too eager to cut off funding without seeing any evidence.

Most of the big country donors have since resumed the flow of funds. The UK has held back and Germany is only funding Unrwa operations outside Gaza. Although the trigger for the cut in funding was the allegations about 7 October, the UK and German governments have said they will take the Colonna report on the broader questions of integrity and neutrality into account when they review their positions.

For the US, formerly Unrwa’s biggest source of finance, it is too late. Congress has insisted US funding of the agency should not resume until March 2025 at the earliest.

There was an element of miscalculation and accident in how this funding crisis unfolded. On 18 January, the Unrwa commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini, was summoned to the Israeli foreign ministry and presented with a list of a dozen Unrwa staff alleged to have taken part in the Hamas attack on 7 October in which 1,200 Israelis were killed.

Lazzarini checked the list and found that the 12 named men were or had been employees, though two of them had already died. There was no evidence to prove that the other 10 had played any role on 7 October but the commissioner general used his executive powers to fire them anyway, to protect Unrwa’s reputation and its operations in Gaza.

However, far from cauterising the problem, the dismissals heightened the misgivings of donor governments, who reasoned that the staff would not have been fired in the absence of a serious problem.

It is impossible to tell whether simply suspending the workers would ultimately have had the same effect, but the firings certainly triggered a rush for the door. Within a day of Lazzarini’s announcement, the first nine donors had suspended funding.

Those decisions were taken in an environment that Israel had cultivated over the years in which Unrwa was perceived as a captive of Hamas in Gaza, and it was that environment and those perceptions that the Colonna review was commissioned to address.

The final report recognises the challenges that the agency has faced, particularly since Hamas seized total control of Gaza in 2007. Almost all Unrwa staff are local in a system in which Hamas is the overwhelming political force in all walks of life.

The Colonna report credits Unrwa with significant efforts to maintain its neutrality in such challenging circumstances. Contrary to the image projected by Israel and its supporters of Unrwa schools being factories of antisemitic hate, the review looked at three independent assessments and found only two cases of antisemitic imagery or language, which had been edited or deleted.

Part of the vetting of Unrwa’s 13,000 staff in Gaza, the review explains, has involved handing the lists of its employees to Israel and the US, but the report noted Israel had not raised a concern about anyone on the list since 2011.

Colonna lists various ways in which Unrwa’s procedures could be made even more rigorous, but some of her recommendations involve Israel and the donors being more cooperative.

What emerges vividly from Colonna’s account is Israeli non-engagement both before and after 7 October. That reflects a widespread mindset in the Israeli political scene that Unrwa cannot be improved or reformed but only eliminated.

It is a political issue. The agency’s full name is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. It reflects the fact that it was founded in the aftermath of the 1948 Israeli war of independence and its continued existence reflects the fact that all the problems left behind by that war remain unresolved.

The Palestinians displaced by that conflict, and the wars that followed, are still refugees, together with their descendants. That legal status, enshrined in Unrwa’s name and its continued operation, implies a right of return under international law, a right that can only be resolved by a comprehensive settlement.

Until then, Unrwa is a reminder to Israel of its obligations as an occupying power, and to some Israelis it is therefore an enemy to be eliminated, no matter what the cost in Palestinian lives.

Source: The Guardian